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Miss Conduct

A friend in need

Helping a classmate escape an abusive boyfriend, plus when private criticisms go public.

By Robin Abrahams
April 3, 2011

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A friend of mine has a boyfriend who is a serious dirtbag. She’s tried breaking up with him four times, but each time he’s threatened to kill himself. He’s gone as far as to cut her name into his arm. She is an insanely nice person, always has a smile on her face, and probably feels guilty about this entire thing when she really shouldn’t. She’s new to our school, so she doesn’t have that many friends just yet, and she is failing math. I want to help her out, but I don’t know what to do.

N.P. / Cascade, Maryland

You sound like a kind person, N.P., and you’ll need to balance your helpful impulses with setting boundaries. Just as your friend is not responsible for whether her self-styled “boyfriend” commits suicide, you are not responsible for whether she breaks up with him. You can offer her support and advice, of course, but don’t make her feel like a failure if she doesn’t get with the program right away.

Given the boyfriend’s behavior and your friend’s fears for (and of?) him, she ought to talk to an administrator or teacher in the school to find out how she can safely get herself out of this situation.

Why don’t you offer to go with her to student health, the principal, or the counseling center? Knowing someone has her back might make her more comfortable, especially if she winds up having to tell her story to several people.

Don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly which adult is the right one to approach – just find someone in charge whom your friend trusts enough to talk to. If that person isn’t the right one to help, he or she will know who is.

Meanwhile, the best thing you can do now is help your new friend make more friends. Start introducing her around. Do you know anyone who’s good in math and might be willing to start a study group?

I made an unflattering comment about a co-worker’s abilities to another co-worker, one whom I trusted and have often confided in. My confidant decided to repeat my words to the person I criticized, who was understandably upset and went to my manager in tears. I feel that I should apologize; however, I can’t say “I didn’t mean it,” because I did mean it. I want to be sincere without lying and without further upsetting this person. Is there any way to do this?

S.G. / Boston

The not “further upsetting this person” part isn’t going to happen, however silver your tongue. Your co-worker will almost certainly be upset, if only to be reminded of the incident (which doesn’t get you out of apologizing; not doing so would be worse). I regret to tell you our mothers lied: “Please” and “thank you” aren’t magic words. Neither is “I’m sorry,” but it’s better than nothing, so here goes.

You can apologize for criticizing X out of turn and say you completely understand X’s anger. You would feel the same way. It was not your business to critique X, and you never should have chosen to do that. You sincerely regret your choice of words, which you would do anything to take back – it was only your intention to amuse a work friend and vent some frustration, which we all do at work. You hope that if X has ever made an ill-considered remark that he or she regrets, that X will remember that moment and forgive you, and that you’ll be able to work together civilly in the future. Again, you apologize.

That’s about the best you can do – or the best I can do, at any rate. If you trust your manager, talk to him or her about the situation as well, and ask for support in rebuilding your relationship with X. And good luck.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology.

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